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by Brian Keepers
The rhododendrons encamped around my house are in full bloom. Little balls of pinkish-purple hue are bursting everywhere. This is the first wave of blossoms. The next wave will come later this summer from the other rhododendrons, which will surprise us with blue blossoms.
The word rhododendron comes from two Greek words meaning “rose tree.” I look forward to the blossoming of these “rose trees” every year. They add so much color to our yard, so much beauty. While I notice them every year, it was only a few days ago that I really saw the beauty of these blossoms.
My youngest daughter Abby was plucking the blossoms from the plants and assembling a home-made flower arrangement for her mother. I was sitting out back on our deck, reading, when Abby comes skipping by and hands me a single flower from one of the clusters. “Here, Dad!” she beams. “I picked this for you!”
I hold the fragile flower by its thin stem and slowly twirl it between my thumb and index finger, really looking at it for the first time. I am struck by its intricacies. So much detail that I hadn’t ever taken time to notice. I recall something that Betty Edwards says in her classic book on drawing titled Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain: “You haven’t really seen something until you’ve drawn it. Learning to draw is about learning to see.”
So, on a whim I decide to draw the flower. I draw the five little petals, each unique, opening up to the world. I use colored pencils so I can capture the nuance of the pinkish-purple hues—the way it is darker on the edges of each petal and then becomes lighter as the purple washes down to the center. In one of the petals is a splash of yellow freckles (every single flower is designed this way, with only one petal having freckles). I had never seen this before! Eleven thin seeds protrude from the center of the flower, ten of them with little white tips that look like teeth when you face it straight on, and the eleventh longer than all the rest with a pink tip like a long tongue that licks the air and catches the rain.
As I draw this flower, it really does feel like I’m seeing it for the first time, waking up to the beauty that is right in front of me. In this way, drawing is like prayer. Prayer is the practice of learning to wake up to the world, having our eyes opened by the Spirit to see the beauty and wonder ablaze all around us, a world that is “charged with the grandeur of God” (Gerard Manley Hopkins).
John Calvin described prayer as “the chief exercise of faith.” We are called to pray, says Calvin, not because God is “drowsily blinking or even sleeping until he is roused by our voice.” Prayer does not rouse a sleeping God; it rouses us—we who are “sluggish” and bogged down by “such great dullness.” (Institutes 3.20.3)
Calvin insists that prayer is the chief exercise by which God awakens us to see the goodness of God’s character, the abundance of God’s grace and all his benefits towards us in Christ, and the way in which the entire world is a theater of God’s glory, from the immensity of the Milky Way to the tiny freckles on the petal of a rhododendron flower.
To have our eyes opened, to be ravished by beauty, provokes gratitude. We begin to feel more alive and our hearts overflow with thankfulness. “Gratitude takes nothing for granted,” writes Thomas Merton. “[It] is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder, and to praise of the goodness of God.”
This is why I love to draw. Not just because it engages my imagination and I get lost in the flow of creating but because it puts me in a posture of prayer, opens my eyes to wonder, and helps me live all of life in gratitude and praise.
For this reason, I commend drawing to any and every person. Even if you think you can’t draw, I urge you to pick up a pencil (or a crayon if that is less intimidating), and do your best to draw what you see—the petals of a flower, the wrinkles of a tree stump, the black spots on the back of a lady bug. The point is not to create a masterpiece but to learn to see, to behold the beauty of the Lord. The point is prayer.
Of course other things besides drawing can become prayer, too. Painting a canvas, writing poetry, making music, shaping clay. Even hobbies like wood-working, quilting, cooking and baking, tending a garden. Perhaps there is no activity under the sun, so long as it is not immoral or criminal, that cannot somehow become an act of prayer that awakens us to God’s beauty and goodness all around us.
Benedictine monks understood this when they adopted the motto laborare est orare, which translates in English as “to work is to pray.” By this they meant that all our work (and acts of creativity) can be both a means by which God awakens us to his presence as well as an offering of worship from our hearts and hands.
To work is to pray. For me, to draw is to pray. What is it for you?
Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; flinches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pierced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change.
– Gerard Manley Hopkins, Pied Beauty
Brian Keepers is the minister of preaching and congregational leadership at Fellowship Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan.